Court to rule on when judges must recuse themselves (Nov. 14, 2008)

The Supreme Court will decide whether the Constitution requires elected state judges to recuse themselves if a case involves the financial interests of a major campaign donor.

Don Blankenship, CEO and president of A.T. Massey Coal Co., spent more than $3 million supporting the 2004 campaign of Judge Brent Benjamin for a seat on the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia. Blankenship backed Benjamin’s campaign while Massey was preparing to appeal a $50 million fraud verdict to the court. After Justice Benjamin won the election and took his seat on that court, Harman Mining Co. requested that Justice Benjamin recuse himself from Massey’s appeal but the judge refused and then twice voted with the court’s majority to overturn the verdict in favor of Harman Mining by a 3-2 vote.

Justice Benjamin did not respond to a request for comment. In a long opinion issued in July explaining his decision not to disqualify himself, he said he had judged the case on the merits and that only proof of a judge’s actual bias, as opposed to the appearance of a conflict, requires recusal.

Massey has filed a brief urging the Supreme Court not to hear the case, calling the matter “a grand conspiracy theory.” The Massey brief said the Supreme Court “has never adopted a ‘looks bad’ due process test.”

In asking the Supreme Court to grant review, attorneys for Harman argued that "this case raises a recurring issue of far-reaching national importance."

"Although judicial elections -- and contributions to elected judges -- are a well-established means of selecting a state judiciary, there will be rare cases where campaign expenditures by a litigant create a constitutionally unacceptable appearance of impropriety. This is such a case," contends former Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson, who represents Hugh Caperton, president of Harman Mining Co.

Meanwhile, the American Bar Association and several other groups have filed friend-of-the-court briefs urging the court to hear the case.

“If the public believes that judges can be bought,” said Keith R. Fisher, a lawyer for the bar association, “that is really poisonous and undermines public confidence in an independent judiciary.”

On Nov. 14, the justices accepted the case for review.

Question presented: Whether a judge’s failure to recuse himself from a case in which he received substantial campaign donations from one of the parties violates the Due Process rights of the other party.

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